'A Fossil of Our Youth': An Interview with Marlowe Granados

The author of Happy Hour on charm as currency, the resilience of feminity, and getting away with things. 

Photo credit: Basia Wyszynski

“Can we go for cocktails and charge Hazlitt?” asks Marlowe Granados when I first approach the novelist about conducting an interview. It’s a line that could have been pulled straight out of Happy Hour (Flying Books), her singular, stylish debut chronicling the capricious adventures of Gala and Isa, two insouciant naïf-types who embark on odd jobs like selling vintage clothes, life modeling and seat-filling at a network TV show amidst glamorous evenings spent drinking and flirting at flimsy social engagements throughout the course of one sweat-drenched, heatstroke summer in New York. Happy Hour depicts life not as a propulsive narrative but a fascinating character study of two women daring enough to engage in that most anathema pursuit—doing nothing in New York. Though I was too sheepish to ask Hazlitt to foot the bill, I agreed cocktails would be the perfect backdrop to discuss a book where one character ends up unwittingly on the cover of the New York Post.

We met on the back patio of Bar Piquette on Toronto’s Queen Street, on a warm night amidst a few occupied tables of revellers. Full disclosure: Marlowe and I are quite friendly, having met through what I am loath to describe as the “Toronto literary scene,” and have plenty in common—our mutual love of glamorous designer clothes is a defining characteristic. I felt the need to dress up for our meeting, and donned a vintage linen Max Mara dress that reveals a sliver of décolletage for the occasion. Marlowe arrived looking angelic in a hot pink Dolce & Gabbana slip dress, hair pulled up in a cartoonish chiffon scrunchie and eyes perfectly shadowed in a shade of pinky-red that might portend illness on someone else but looked divine on her. She was the physical embodiment of her own quote, ”I am passionate about glamour—because it is illusive, hard to define, yet identifiable.”

Happy Hour conjures up the carefree spirit of pre-Covid era, when it was not yet deadly to drop into multiple events in one evening or crash with a stranger whose name you may or may not remember in the morning. Part Shopgirl, part Slaves of New York, Happy Hour is an Old Hollywood screwball comedy dressed up in a vintage Versace silk slip dress scrounged up at the thrift store for a song. Like Breatharians, Granados’s lighthearted heroines seem to subsist purely on fun. The prose goes down like champagne sparkle garnished with a lemon twist. There isn’t a single throwaway line in the book.

In between plates of oysters and glasses of Prosecco, we discussed unreliable narrators, generational trauma, underage party girl exploits, and the importance of taking fun seriously. 

Isabel Slone: I’m going to start with the question that you probably hate, which is, how much of the book is real?

Marlowe Granados: The book is loosely based on a summer I spent in New York when I was 21. I started writing it when I was 22 and finished it when I was 25. I draw on the events of that summer but also on a lot of things that I had experienced over the course of my life. I started going out when I was 15, so a lot of the observations I had from that period I definitely put into the book. It was as though I had been saving them for something. 

A lot of people read the book and think, “Oh, it's you” about the Isa character, but no, it’s not. Isa has this weird way of seeing things that I’ve grown out of as I’ve gotten older. A lot of the events that happen in the book, I would react quite negatively to, but Isa’s kind of this weird gel, she doesn’t really feel affected by other people’s actions. She's really positive in the way she spins things. Writing the character was quite challenging, because when you get older this kind of scornfulness takes over.

There is a real Gala and a real Nicolas. I was saying to Gala the other day, there are times when I actually can’t differentiate between what actually happened and what I’ve written. I don't remember the real version of events anymore, I only remember how I fictionalized them. It’s very bizarre. The book is kind of this commemoration of the way we were before. And not only when we were 21, but when we were 18 or 17 or 16, living in a city and being a little wild.

Tell me about going out when you were 15.

I was left to my own devices a lot as a kid. My mom travelled a lot during the week, so I was kind of unsupervised. I realized that the best nights to go out were mid-week, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I had a part-time retail job so I made friends with people who were older and cool, and they helped me get into parties. I was just bored, I guess. I loved it.

I spent a really weird summer in New York when I was 18. I had written a script and was trying to get it made. All my friends and I would sneak into these clubs—I didn’t realize how odd it was until later. At the time I was obsessed with i-D magazine; I collected every single issue from when I was in Grade 7 until high school. It always came out in Canada a month after it was originally released. Later on, I realized I had met all these people who were featured in i-D. All of a sudden, I was hanging out with them all the time, going out in New York, getting snuck into bars… I guess this making it work mentality has always been familiar to me and it was really great source material, because I met all these crazy people at the time. 

The thought of going to New York alone at 18 sounds terrifying to me. Were you just fearless?

I was definitely crazy and a little bit wild when I was young. I’ll tell you this one story that I’ve never really talked about before. When I was 15, I told my mom that I was going to go to London with these girls that I had met on MySpace. I had met them in New York before, when my mom and I had gone down there for a cute trip. I had gone a bit crazy with plane tickets—this was before Photoshop, I used to doctor things to show to my mom. It was really bad.

So, I went to London by myself and I was supposed to stay with these girls, but when I got there, they were like, no… I remember getting off the plane and being in Hyde Park at 7 in the morning, having nowhere to go at first and realizing, “Okay, I guess I have to just survive this.” My mom, like, fainted, when she found out I was alone. I stayed there for a full week. I just wandered around and went to parties. I didn’t have that much money. Someone would offer to let me stay at their apartment and then never come back so I would hang around in the hallway outside the apartment door, being like, should I sleep outside the door?

Did you sleep outside the door?

No, I found somewhere else to stay. I remember at one point I booked a hostel—it was so scary. It was in this Victorian house with no heating and cracked mirrors. It was meant for people to room together, so there were two twin beds in a room. It was terrifying. I vaguely remember being there and thinking, “I can do this. This is fine.”

For a long time I just had this mentality where I believed everything was going to be fine. That was the beginning of my party girl phase. After that, everything was like, whatever. I didn’t think anything after that could compare to this really scary moment where I was so far away from home. I stayed there for the whole week in London, just kind of going around. After that, I used to take the bus to New York all the time by myself and my mom was okay with it. It was a weird way of growing up, a little bit hippie. 

So, you learned this extreme sense of resourcefulness early on and it served you very well into the future. 

Yeah. When my mom left me alone during the week, I did everything by myself. I had to make myself dinner, I ate grilled cheese sandwiches every day after school. I watched TV and went to school on time. It was all on me. So really early on I fell in love with this kind of lifestyle—I had all these magazines and realized you could meet all these interesting people and just have fun and be wild. It was completely in my reach, so I would just go after it.

That reminds me of a line in the book, “As much as this summer is about branching out into a semblance of adulthood, it is also about fun. I take both seriously.” Where did you learn how to take fun seriously?

I think that having fun and taking these things that tend to be cast aside as nothing serious is so important. It’s so disappointing to me that people often don’t understand how important lightness is. The ability to fight for lightness is so much about how you enjoy life. And now, in a pandemic, people are starting to come to terms with that a little bit more. The ability to have a life that’s spontaneous and exciting, that’s something people have really been missing even though they might not have taken advantage of it originally.

This striving for lightness was also a problem for me earlier on in publishing. It was suggested to me that Gala and Isa didn’t have this clear-cut trauma that people could respond to. It doesn’t follow a plot where something bad happens to these girls and then they spend the rest of the book trying to get over it. I don’t think that’s realistic.

All the women that I’m good friends with all have different things going on in their lives—whether it’s family, grieving, heartbreak—but the whole point is that when we're all together, that doesn't really matter. We’re all able to bring each other up and be really giddy and funny and laugh. That’s so important, and for me, kind of enriching. 

You mentioned that it was hard for you to sell the book—I’ve heard you say before that your agent once told you that you would have to write a second book in order to sell this one. Why is that? 

Basically what happened is in 2017, my agent went out shopping the book in the US, and no one wanted it. It was the summer after Trump was elected and right before #MeToo happened, so people really wanted stories from women about how hard it is to be a woman. That’s been an overarching trend of how I’ve had to pitch this book. People are always saying, “Oh, she’s a woman of colour, can we talk a little bit more about that?” I’m not going to make this about my racialized experience. Even being a woman of colour, the only time I ever realized it was when people kept pointing it out to me as I grew up. Isa’s not walking around being like, “I’m a woman of colour,” people are always just pointing it out to her in public spaces. 

Men love calling her “exotic.”

Yeah, and she’s just like, “Ew, gross, get away from me.” She doesn’t internalize it because it doesn’t really matter to her. But it’s definitely the way the world is. I don’t want it to be a situation where white people get to feel good about reading my book because they’re hearing this different perspective. The whole idea is the girls are camouflaged. That’s something I wanted to slyly sneak in there. I only very briefly touch on the fact that Gala’s character is originally from Sarajevo, and Isa has this parentage, similar to mine, from countries that have these wildly political and catastrophic histories from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

A lot of the time, you ask your family about those times, and they don’t want to share it. I recently called my dad because I wanted to clear up some things I've heard about our family. He was like, “I would never talk to you about the civil war in El Salvador because it doesn’t have good memories for me.” And I was like, “Fair enough.” That's a lot of the vibe from my mother’s family too. They came here from the Philippines and they haven't gone back since, and that’s just the way it is.

It’s one of the least-navel-gazing books I’ve ever read. Isa and Gala are constantly observing and describing the events happening around them, instead of reflecting on it internally.

I used to read a lot of books that had these manic pixie dream girl characters, but never from their perspective. So, I always wanted to write a book from the perspective of the type of girls who are always being observed but never seem to be making their own observations. The strongest part of these characters is the way they can see through people’s inauthenticities. With them, it’s not about whether they’ll get taken advantage of, but whether they’ll give whoever they’re talking to the time of day. They’re like, “I understand what you’re trying to do and I kind of feel sorry for you, but are you going to pay for dinner?”

I hate novels where the protagonists are only thinking about the internal. I find it very disingenuous. I think it’s just as important to have narrators who are in on the action, really in it. I guess I’ve always just thought that internal voice has always been a bit corny and stilted and heavy handed. It’s also a little bit bitter, and I hate bitterness. I’m really unsentimental but I also hate bitterness. There’s no need for it. I’d rather read about characters who are like, “You know what? Fuck ‘em. I don’t care.”

That’s interesting, because at times I felt like the characters were yearning for something ephemeral they could never quite reach, and at other times I felt like there was no sentimentality on display at all. Do either one of those resonate with you?

I think a lot of the yearning you refer to is the desire to be preserved. Gala and Isa want to have some sort of legacy, to have had a say in how they are perceived. Isa keeps a diary throughout the book that basically functions as the last word on her life. It’s how she’s going to remember things, reframing her life in a way that maybe isn’t the most accurate but felt like the way events played out in real life.

There are these Victorian literary archetypes of the angel and the trickster. Isa's definitely the angel and Gala’s the trickster. You have these two powers, and they're kind of feeding off of each other. The only way that you can get Isa’s vulnerability is when you hear from Gala, who is cutting into the artifice a little bit.

Since Gala and Nicolas are both based on real people, how did you decide what to preserve and what to obfuscate about the characters?

I could have just changed the names, but I kind of liked the idea of preserving them as a fossil of our youth. Even if it had never been published, this book is kind of my homage to them. Gala’s more unrefined and kind of brash. She can step into any situation and be like, “What the fuck is going on?” That’s an important friendship dynamic to have. If you’re stuck talking to someone you don’t want to talk to, you need a friend in the Gala role who can just say, “We’ve got to go right now, such an emergency, we must leave.” There’s this tension between being rude and polite, a bit on edge and a little bit spicy with the people around them, because they’re always going to be stronger as a unit. I think that’s the core of the friendship. It is a novel mainly about Isa, but it is also the story of balancing a friendship in very close quarters, where your actual survival is hinging on it. 

Every line in the book is so tight—on every single page, there’s like, three life lessons that you’ve dressed up in really punchy language—like an Emily Post etiquette book, but far more modern.

One of the suggested titles for the book was One Must in the sense of “One must do this...”  When I started writing this book it was that the voice came to me before anything else. The rhythm of the way Isa speaks and the way that she gives advice, in a manner that’s lighthearted but also... not snotty, but it’s a little bit of, “I know better and you should listen to me because I’ve lived.” She has this worldliness about her that she wants to share so that you don’t get into trouble.

What is it you want readers to walk away from the book with a sense of?

It's very much about using charm as currency, and also about the resilience of femininity. It’s kind of a survivalist novel in a sense, only the girls’ standards of survival are different from others. It’s not like they’re going around eating beans or whatever. That's something people criticize my writing for; they’re always like, “But they’re not suffering enough.”

There’s this film, Redheaded Woman starring Jean Harlow, where she plays a real down-home, showgirl-type character, with a poodle and a sugar daddy. The screenplay is based on a book by Anita Loos, who's one of my favourite writers. The whole idea is she’s this woman who gets away with things, and at the very end, she gets away with it all. People hate that. They always want women to be taught a lesson, and I hate that. Even when I was 22, writing the book, I thought, “I don’t want to write something where these women are punished.” Because I had already been punished for certain things in my own life. Ultimately, I wanted something to celebrate the fact that you can get away with certain things without a scratch, and that's the best part a lot of the time. You don’t have to have this story that ends in deep-rooted trauma that you’re going to pass on to your children... I just think that’s not true of the world. To be able to have a negative experience without any bitterness, without feeling any sort of ugliness, is important, I think. That’s the world that I want to live in, at least.

Isabel B. Slone has written for Racked, Globe and Mail, National Post and The Hairpin. She likes The Smiths and has an impressive collection of black ankle boots. One time, a friend described her as "low octane."